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A comprehensive look at Jewish life in Turkey

German Islamic website has covered the life of Jews in Turkey - 20,000 Sephardi Jews still live in Istanbul – occasionally. pieces them together for its readers, courtesy The three reports in this collection provide a fascinating glimpse into the life of Jews in secular yet Islamic Turkey.




1. Jewish Life in Istanbul: The Guardians of Hope by Kai Strittmatter

Istanbul was once a centre of Jewish life. Now 20,000 Sephardi Jews still live in the city. The writer Mario Levi recreates the spirit of time past in his books, which is also nurtured by a businessman and a linguist. Kai Strittmatter has been exploring Jewish life in Istanbul

2. Jews in Turkey: A Varied History by Baha Güngör

Up until the attacks on two Istanbul synagogues on Nov. 15th, Turkish Jews were well accepted into Turkish society. Baha Güngör sketches the history and present situation of the approx. 20,000-strong Jewish minority in Turkey

3. Jews in Turkey: A Quiet yet Fragile Happiness by Tobias Asmuth

More Jews live in Turkey than in any other Muslim country in the world. They are struggling to regain the normality they lost in the bomb attacks of 2003 and hope that their native country will accede to the EU. Tobias Asmuth reports from Istanbul.


Jewish Life in Istanbul

The Guardians of Hope

Istanbul was once a centre of Jewish life. Now 20,000 Sephardi Jews still live in the city. The writer Mario Levi recreates the spirit of time past in his books, which is also nurtured by a businessman and a linguist. Kai Strittmatter has been exploring Jewish life in Istanbul

"Istanbul is full of graves which tell stories in foreign tongues" | Things don't always go the way a dreamer would like to dream them. But that's OK. As the writer says, this is still the best place in the world. And it's hard to disagree, on this evening, sitting in front of a freshly brewed mokka on the fourth-floor balcony in the Amber-Polisher's House on Windmill Street. Below is the sea – the sea in the middle of the city, which this very morning has revealed to a few lucky people the sight of a group of frolicking dolphins.

Over there, on the other side: Europe, which one can see burning in the light of the setting sun. Istanbul. Mario Levi giggles, as he often does. Leave here? Why on earth? "I live in a city which provides me with such a torrent of stories, that I will never cease writing them."

Anyone who has difficulties integrating fits into his stories, says Levi. That's what makes this city, this country, into an inexhaustible source. It is his city, his country, but still, from time to time, he feels like a stranger.

Mario Levi is someone who lives on the edge. That has something to do with his character, but also with his origins. And that's fine with him, says the 51-year-old: "I'm happy with my sadness. It's a gift. If I were a happy man, I wouldn't be a writer." It's not so long ago that he was giving a reading in a foreign country and a young Turkish woman came up to him and asked him in English for an autograph. When he said he came from Istanbul, she was shocked and cried, "Are you Turkish? That can't be true. How come you're called Mario Levi? That's not a Turkish name!"

The Ottoman Jews were the most prosperous community in the diaspora

So where does the name come from? Levi is one of the sons of Jacob in the Old Testament, and the father of one of the Israelite tribes. And Mario is a Spanish name. Mario Levi has his name because he is one of the Jews who originated from Spain, a Sephardi. He's one of those whose families have lived in Turkey for over 500 years.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain gave all the Jews in their empire a choice: become Christians or flee the country. Almost all of them fled, and most of them fled to the young Ottoman empire, "where everyone lives in peace under the shade of his vine or his fig-tree," as the rabbi of Edirne rapturously told his fellow-Jews. Sultan Beyazid invited them to come, greedy for their knowledge and their skills, and it wasn't long before the Jews of the Ottoman Empire were the most prosperous in the whole diaspora.

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jews made up the majority of the population in Salonica; the Istanbul district of Balat was home to Europe's largest Jewish community. Twenty thousand Sephardim still live in Istanbul; a hundred years ago there were ten times as many in the whole country. They are the guardians of a language which they brought from their homeland. If one pays attention, one can still hear it: in the summer, on the Princes' Islands, or in the cafés on the banks of the Bosporus, where elderly ladies meet for tea and a game of cards, all of a sudden switching from Turkish into that strangely moving Spanish which they have preserved from the Middle Ages and which they call Ladino. And still there are young Turks who know nothing of all this.

Istanbul is a wounded city

"If I were a happy man, I wouldn't be a writer": for the Jewish writer Mario Levi, Istanbul is the best place in the world, a city full of inspiration – in spite of problems. Mario Levi presented his book "Istanbul Was a Fairy-Tale" at the Frankfurt Book Fair | That's another reason why Mario Levi writes: "So that the stories flow from one to another." To fill the gaps which have grown up: in the memory of the city, but also in its appearance, which is still full of the inheritance of the repressed – full of inscriptions on houses, churches and synagogues, the letters of which already look like alien code, even though the Jews, the Christians and the Armenians called this their home only yesterday.

The city is also full of graves, which tell Istanbul's stories in foreign tongues. The spirit of old Istanbul haunts derelict wooden houses full of mould. Bulldozers don't dare to come near. Is it because of a bad conscience? This is a wounded city.

It's fitting that the German Suhrkamp publishing house brought Mario Levi's novel to the Frankfurt Book Fair, which has just closed. The times seem to be softening, after a period when Turkey tried to force Turkishness on everyone and everything. The minister of culture Ertugrul Günay said before leaving for Frankfurt that he sees it as particularly important to present the ethnic and religious variety of his country. These are new tones for a country which has often appeared so torn, so paranoid.

Mario Levi: "Istanbul Was a Fairy-Tale"

Mario Levi has called his book "Istanbul Was a Fairy-Tale." One looks in vain for magic or misty-eyed nostalgia. The book is a river fed by an endless number of streams. "To search for Niko meant to search for a lost life," is how Levi describes his task as he writes about Niko the jacket maker, who feeds raki to his old cat Yorgos every evening, until an anti-Greek mob forces him into exile in 1955.

It seems as if Levi wanted to gather all the lost lives together, to leave none out: not the elegant but unhappy Olga whose family fled the pogroms in Riga, nor the silver thief Ibrahim, nor the Armenian uncle Kirkor, who whiles away the time with Monsieur Jacques playing the Turkish backgammon called Tavla. There was a time "when nobody could say what the real language of the city was." One heard Yiddish on the streets around the Galata Tower, as well as Greek, Armenian, French and Arabic. Petty bourgeois, traders, skilled workers: the Jews of Istanbul at the start of the twentieth century were often poor.

If this Istanbul is a fairy-tale, then that's only because the story-teller is not out of breath, even after 1001 nights. For Mario Levi, the issue is this: what might have been if Istanbul had been spared its "frightful awakening" into the nationalist delirium of the young republic.

Ishak Alaton: "Taking revenge in a positive way"

In his youth, the 81-year-old businessman Ishak Alaton swore to take revenge "in a positive way" | What might have been – that thought is what drove the seventeen-year-old Ishak Alaton, now 81, when he swore "to take revenge in a positive way." He wanted revenge against the system which destroyed his father, who loved Atatürk, the founder of the republic. Atatürk commanded the family to speak only Turkish at home. Alaton's father built a modest fortune with the import of textiles from England – until 1942.

That was the year when the Turkish nationalists took revenge against all who were not Turks but were still prosperous. The Turks had lost a multi-ethnic empire and founded a republic. It was a time when the justice minister could tell the non-Turks in the country that they had "only the right to be slaves."

It was a period of contradictions. On the one hand, the state took in Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, on the other, in 1942 it imposed a property tax which had one aim: to destroy all non-Muslim prosperity. Those who could not pay their debts were condemned to forced labour. Alaton's father worked in a quarry in Erzurum in Eastern Anatolia, together with 2,000 other Jews, Greeks and Armenians. His father returned a broken man. The son swore that he would become rich and famous. "I wanted to make them think," he says. "Everyone should see: how bad it was to destroy so many good people."

Ishak Alaton went to Sweden, trained as a welder and became a social democrat. He returned to Turkey and set up a company called Alarko together with a partner. Today he is rich, the best-known Jewish businessman in Turkey, with interests in property, construction and tourism. He's still a social democrat, and if he has one criticism of the Jewish community, then it's this: "They never wanted to be noticed. I found that outrageous." Alaton founded political think tanks, campaigned for democracy.

"The others kept their heads down," he says. "I went on television and shouted: 'I'm Jewish.'" Once, ten years ago, a viewer rang live into his talkshow and wanted to know if Alaton felt like a Turk. "My family has been living here for 500 years," responded Alaton, "and yours?"

Ishak Alaton: "Antisemitism is not widely spread among Turks "

The Jews did not have to suffer such a brutal expulsion as the Greeks or the Armenians. Many left for Israel. Those who remained emphasised their loyalty. Even today, in every service in the synagogue, a prayer is said for the president.

The Turkish Jewish community has acted as a lobby for Turkey among its influential fellow-Jews in the USA and Israel. "That gives us brownie points," says 25-year-old David Ojalvo. Ojalvo works for Shalom, the Jewish community newssheet, and is in charge of the opinion pages. He says, "We don't have political opinions. We keep out of it." Visitors to the paper's offices in the middle class suburb of Tesvikiye have to stand in front of a barred door and submit to camera observation. Synagogues have been attacked. In 1986, 22 Jews were killed, six in 2003.

Ojalvo, whose best friend is a Muslim, still agrees with Alaton when he says that antisemitism is not widespread among Turks. The problem is rather discrimination by the system. On the one hand, the state uses its alleged generosity towards the Jews for propaganda purposes abroad, on the other hand, it has confiscated community land – and members of minorities still cannot gain promotion to become ministers or senior military officers. Mario Levi jokes, "Who wants it? I don't." Alaton is more serious: "I want Turkey to apologise."

The newspaper Shalom is now 61 years old and has a circulation of just under 5,000.

The fifteen journalists don't receive pay. David Ojalvo is studying medicine. One thing which worries him is that many young Jews don't show any interest in the community once they've passed the age of eighteen. The cement which held the community together is crumbling. The columns which supported it threaten to collapse: Ladino, for example – in the early days most of the articles in Shalom were written in Ladino. Now Ladino occupies just one page out of eight.

Ladino is dying. Nobody ought to know that better than the linguist Karen Gerson Sarhon. She has done research on the decline of Ladino and is responsible for the Ladino page in Shalom. She shrugs: "Times change," she says. When she was young, she and her friends used to put on plays making fun of their Ladino-speaking parents and grandparents. Today she runs the Istanbul Centre for Sephardi Cultural Studies and performs Ladino songs. Sarhon sings. Sarhon is a member of the last generation which still speaks Ladino. Who still reads her page? "Everyone over fifty," she answers.

The determined, vivacious Sarhon sees the issue surprisingly unsentimentally. The language has been well researched in the last few years; it's been, in effect, prepared for the museum; now let it rest in peace. The older generation is anyway to blame, says Sarhon: "They always switched into French, and later into Turkish. Ladino wasn't intellectual enough for them. My mother always used to say, 'That isn't a language, it's a salad.'"

The Turkish language as homeland

Istanbul: "Full of the inheritance of the repressed, of inscriptions on houses, churches and synagogues" | Mario Levi says his homeland isn't a city, and it isn't a country, his homeland is the Turkish language. Only a handful of people in Turkey can live from writing, and Levi teaches advertisement copywriting at the university. At the weekend he goes to the football stadium, to watch Fenerbahce. It's the generals' favourite club. It was also Levi's father's favourite club.

Sometimes, when they can't get the ten men they need for prayers, the people in the synagogue in Kadiköy phone him, and, although he lost his faith to Voltaire and Rousseau as a young man, he hurries over. He has a programme on the radio. He likes most to talk about what he enjoys most: cooking and eating. Last week it was about the Lüfer, the bluefish. "As far as Istanbul is concerned," he says with a generous guffaw, "I'm a chauvinist. Nowhere does the fish taste as good as out of the Bosporus." However polluted it is.

This city, this country, they sometimes make heavy demands. Last year a gang of nationalists killed Levi's friend, the Armenian-Turkish journalist, Hrant Dink. Things don't go the way he would like, says Mario Levi. "But I'm optimistic," he adds. "I want to be optimistic." He pauses. "I ought to be optimistic."

Kai Strittmatter

© Süddeutsche Zeitun/ 2008
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Published: 23.10.2008 - Last modified: 27.10.2008





Jews in Turkey

A Varied History

Up until the attacks on two Istanbul synagogues on Nov. 15th, Turkish Jews were well accepted into Turkish society. Baha Güngör sketches the history and present situation of the approx. 20,000-strong Jewish minority in Turkey

On November 15th, bomb attacks on two synagogues in the centre of Istanbul left twenty-three people dead and several hundred injured. The National Chairman of the Turkish Community in Germany, Hakki Keskin, says that the terrorists clearly intended to place these attacks in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, Keskin insists, Turkey’s Jewish population have “nothing to do with such matters”. As he describes it, Turkey is one of the few countries in which Jews have always lived in safety, suffering neither persecution nor discrimination.

Approximately 20.000 Jews now live in Turkey. While a large majority of them are located in Istanbul, smaller Jewish communities exist in the capital, Ankara; in Izmir on the Aegean coast; and in Hatay and Gaziantep, two Anatolian provinces bordering on Syria. The exact number of Jews in Turkey cannot be determined, as they are registered as Turkish citizens in national censuses.

Ottoman tradition of religious tolerance

Up to now, Turkey’s Jewish minority has always felt secure. The Ottoman Empire typically respected other religions, and Turkey has generally been tolerant and cosmopolitan since the establishment of the secular Republic 80 years ago.

At the start of the 20th century, there were approximately 80,000 Jews in Turkey. The subsequent radical decline in their numbers can be traced back to developments in the period leading up to the Second World War. The anti-colonial War of Liberation fought by the Turks under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was accompanied by considerable economic hardships. Tens of thousands of Jews emigrated to Europe and the United States.

Gaining the status of an officially recognised minority

In the 1950s and 60s, there were further waves of emigration after a substantial property tax was imposed on members of non-Muslim communities, including the Jews. In 1924, the Treaty of Lausanne had included provisions for the recognition of the Jews, Armenians and Greeks as minorities within Turkey. These groups – in contrast to the Kurds, for example – were permitted to maintain their own culture and language, and to publish newspapers and other publications in their own languages and scripts.

During the Nazi period in Germany and Occupied Europe, many Jews sought temporary refuge in Turkey before moving on elsewhere. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, this led to a further wave of emigration.

The Ottoman Empire as a shelter from the Inquisition

Jewish immigration to Turkey dates back to 1492, when Arab rule collapsed on the Iberian peninsula. As the Inquisition began to turn its attention to the Jews, Sultan Beyazid II welcomed them to settle within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, granting them the same religious freedoms that had been accorded to the Christian minorities by Sultan Mehmed II (The Conqueror) after the taking of Constantinople in 1453.

Living in relative peace

Today, there are nearly 40 synagogues in Turkey, almost half of them in Istanbul, the bustling city on the Bosporus. In addition, 19 Jewish charities and five Jewish schools are officially registered in Turkey.

Although Jews have lived in relative peace in Turkey, Jewish institutions have suffered violent attacks previous to November 16th: An earlier attack on the Neve Synagogue had already been carried out on September 6th 1986 – also a Saturday. Twenty-one Jewish worshippers were killed while celebrating the Sabbath.

Baha Güngör

© Deutsche Welle/ 2003
Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

Published: 18.11.2003 - Last modified: 04.09.2006




Jews in Turkey

A Quiet yet Fragile Happiness

More Jews live in Turkey than in any other Muslim country in the world. They are struggling to regain the normality they lost in the bomb attacks of 2003 and hope that their native country will accede to the EU. Tobias Asmuth reports from Istanbul.

Neve Schalom Synagoge, spiritual center of 25.000 Jews in Istanbul | At long last services are being held again in the Neve Shalom Synagogue. For a full year, the Jewish community has waited with growing impatience, longing for the day when its state of emergency would come to an end. Now the walls of its synagogue have been repaired and repainted in a bright shade of ochre. The security measures have also been refreshed: anyone wanting to enter the synagogue has to pass through a security system comprising two steel doors. It's as if these doors bar the way to a bunker that promises protection against the evils of the world outside.

Outside on Büyük Hendek Caddesi, the houses beside the synagogue are still empty; the doors are nailed shut; the windows broken. The owners cannot find new tenants. For Istanbul, a city with a chronic housing shortage, this is a new and unbelievable state of affairs.

Trying to bomb Jews out of Turkey

The memories of 15 November 2003 are still too fresh: the day when Gökhan Elatuntas ignited a truck loaded with explosives in the street, and his accomplice, Mesut Cabuk, blew up a second vehicle filled with explosives in front of the Beth Israel Synagogue in the neighbouring district of Sisli. The terrorists killed 25 people, most of whom were Muslims; only six were Jewish, even though they were the intended target. The intention was to bomb them out of the country.

"We are now living in a sort of limbo," says Denise Saporta, spokeswoman for the Jewish community. "Our future is no longer certain." The shock runs deep. This was not the first bomb attack on the community: in 1986, 22 people were killed. That time, however, the bomb was planted by radical Palestinians. This time, the terrorists came from Anatolian Bingöl. This is why the Jews in Istanbul were almost relieved when five days after the attacks on the synagogues, Islamists committed two more suicide bombings in the city: one outside the British consulate and one outside the British bank HSBC.

In other words, the Jewish community was not the terrorist's prime target. Nevertheless, services in the Neve Shalom Synagogue cannot banish the fear. The elders of the community decided not to remove the blood of the victims from the carpets in the temple; instead, they serve as a reminder of what happened. The names of the victims killed in the attack are listed on a plaque. Neve Shalom means "Oasis of Peace".

"The Jews will find their happiness in Turkey"

A quote from Ataturk is engraved on a marble plaque on the wall of the Jewish Museum in the former Zulfaris Synagogue: "The Jews will find their happiness in Turkey". Alongside the plaque at the entrance to the museum police officers stand guard. The beeps emitted by the safety mechanisms are drowned out by the cries of the Muezzin calling the faithful to evening prayer. The museum, which is a member of the Association of Jewish Museums in Europe, opened its doors just under three years ago. It is the only museum of its kind in a Muslim country.

For its founder, Naim Avigdor Güleryüz (70), the museum is a symbol of the close ties between Jews and Turkey. The history of this relationship is documented on the walls and in the glass cases of the museum. Lengthy text passages tell how the Ottoman Sultan Beyazit II. invited the Jews that were banished from Spain in 1492 to settle in his empire; they celebrate the asylum that the Turkish Republic granted to many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany; old black and white photographs bear witness to the service that Jewish scientists, artists, and sportsmen and women have rendered their country.

Following the exodus to Israel – the Aliya – In the 1950s and under the military dictatorship of the 1970s, just under 22,000 Jews live in Turkey today, some 20,000 of whom reside in Istanbul. They are doctors, traders, journalists … and they seek their happiness and fortune quietly.

Jews as scapegoats

In a country where 99 per cent of the population is Muslim, the rules are straightforward: don't draw attention to yourself; adapt and assimilate. Even though Prime Minister Erdogan declared his solidarity with the Jews after the bomb attacks, Turkey's Jews are more than ever being held responsible for Israel's policies by the man on the street.

Moreover, a small but voluble anti-Semitic part of the press is trumpeting against the "infidel traitors". For Güleryüz, whose ancestors came to Istanbul on the ships in 1492, the "propaganda is like a slap in the face every day."

To date, few Jews have left Turkey since the terrorist attacks. Any who have left are young and this is why the communities are getting older. In the twelve synagogues that are used for worship in Istanbul, reading glasses are laid out alongside the prayer books at the entrance. Since last year, many Jews have applied for a second passport; not necessarily an Israeli passport, but rather a European one.

"Europe will decide the future of our community," believes Denise Saporta. According to surveys, almost 75 per cent of Turks are in favour of their country joining the European Union; virtually all Jews are in favour of a European Turkey. For Denise Saporta, her native land is an experiment that shows on a day-to-day basis that Muslims and Jews can live side by side. But without good prospects, the experiment might fail. "Membership would mean European principles like the protection of minorities. No membership might someday mean politics according to Islamic law."

Tobias Asmuth

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

Published: 27.12.2004 - Last modified: 10.01.2005